At least 179 people have died as a result of landslides and flash flooding in Japan, as the country has been ravaged by heavy rains since last week. The death toll, which continues to rise, is the highest caused by rainfall in Japan since 1982, making this one of the deadliest natural disasters to hit the country since the 2011 earthquake and tsunami at Fukushima.
The storms started on Thursday and continued through the weekend. Some prefectures, including Hiroshima and Okayama, received more than 20 inches of rain over the weekend. Some cities were inundated on Sunday with more than 10 inches of rain in only two hours, according to the Japanese public broadcaster NHK.
More than 8 million people across the western and central regions of Japan have been ordered to evacuate their homes, and many have sought refuge in converted schools and other shelters. Those unable to leave have climbed onto rooftops as streets and buildings have flooded.
The affected region—roughly half the country—is generally considered one of the safest areas in Japan because it is protected from typhoons and is not prone to earthquakes or tsunamis. In a cruel twist of fate, some survivors of the Fukushima disaster moved to this area for their safety.
The storms have caused substantial destruction across the country. Although the government has not yet determined the full extent of the damage, as of Tuesday the Fire and Disaster Management Agency reported that 347 homes had been destroyed or nearly destroyed, and nearly 10,000 homes were flooded. These numbers are expected to rise substantially as municipal authorities finish conducting their own assessments.
The health and safety conditions in the area are growing increasingly dire. Approximately 51,000 homes are cut off from electricity, and more than 250,000 homes are without water across 12 prefectures. Japan’s welfare ministry said there is no estimated time frame for the water to be restored.
Susumu Nakano, the head of the Research Center for Management of Disaster and Environment at Tokushima University, told the Japan Times that water-treatment facilities in the country, often located near rivers, are at risk of being submerged when floods strike. Several water-purification plants in Okayama have been flooded, making it challenging for municipalities to provide residents with potable water. “Compared to [during] earthquakes, there are not enough measures” in place to protect water facilities from damage during floods, Nakano said.
The crisis has been exacerbated by the extreme summer heat. The regions hardest hit by the flooding recorded temperatures in the high 80s and low 90s on Wednesday, putting affected residents and rescue workers at risk for heatstroke.
As the crisis unfolded, there were a few bright spots.
In one case, a local man in the Okayama prefecture singlehandedly rescued 20 of his neighbors from the floods in a rubber dinghy. Hiroshi Nomura was watching the World Cup when his mother called to warn him about the flooding. Nomura drove to an embankment near his home, from which he saw that many of his neighbors were stranded, including an older man on a veranda with water up to his chest and several young children trapped in their homes. Nomura started rowing people to safety in his dinghy, eventually enlisting his friends to help.
A 69-year-old man who was rescued by Nomura told the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, “I am truly grateful because I don’t think I would have made it through another 20 minutes.”
In another case that has gone viral, a miniature horse that inexplicably ended up on a rooftop during the flooding was rescued by members of a disaster-relief nonprofit while they were traveling to an evacuation center. The mare, named Leaf, had been a pet at a nursing home, and workers at the facility had released her to fend for herself when they were forced to flee during the storm.
The rescue team managed to get Leaf off the roof without any serious injury. Members of the relief organization reported that evacuees have come to see the horse and feed her carrots and cabbage. Leaf has also been reunited with the nursing home workers, who reportedly burst into tears upon learning that the horse had miraculously survived the flooding.